By Heidi Sutton
Riding on the coattails of the 2017 box office hit Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, director Jake Kasdan has reassembled the original cast for an equally exciting sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level. Since opening mid-December, the action-packed film has dominated the box office, raking in over $700 million worldwide.
Based on Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 children’s book, “Jumanji,” the story first appeared on the big screen in 1995. Starring Robin Williams, it centered around a creepy board game that summoned forth dangerous jungle creatures each time the dice was thrown.
Kasdan’s successful 2017 reboot featured four high school students — Spencer (Alex Wolff), Bethany (Madison Iseman), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Martha (Morgan Turner) — who come across the video game version of Jumanji while serving detention together.
When each teenager picks an alias to start the game, they are teleported to the world of Jumanji and become the actual avatars they had chosen. Spencer becomes archaeologist Dr. Xander “Smolder” Bravestone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), Bethany is cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Fridge turns into zoologist Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Martha is transformed into martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan).
With only three lifelines each, evident as black stripes on their wrist, the gang is tasked with a series of challenges in order to “win” the game. Only after successfully retrieving the Jaguar’s Eye from an evil villain, with a little help from avatar Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough (Nick Jonas), aka Alex Vreeke (Colin Hanks) who had been stuck in the game for 20 years, do they earn safe passage home.
In The Next Level, the four teenagers, now in college, make plans to meet up at a local cafe for Christmas break.
When Spencer fails to show up for the reunion, his friends go to his house looking for him. To their dismay, they discover the infamous video game, broken but still functional, in the basement and realize their friend has gone back to Jumanji. They decide to go rescue him but things take a funny turn. While Fridge and Martha reenter the digital world, Bethany is bypassed by the game and Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s former best friend Milo (Danny Glover) are unwittingly sucked in as well.
In a hilarious body swapping twist, Danny DeVito’s character initially finds himself in the Rock’s muscular 6-foot 5-inch body while Danny Glover’s character is now a zoologist in Kevin Hart’s body. Martha once again takes the form of Ruby Roundhouse but Fridge is now Jack Black’s map reader.
Bethany joins the group later on in a nonhuman form and Jonas’ Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough also makes a reappearance. As the story unfolds, the cast switch avatars several times more by swimming in magic water, and we are introduced to a new character, a cat burgler named Ming Fleetfoot (rapper Awkwafina).
As the game is now at the next level, the stakes have also been elevated. Jumanji is suffering from a massive drought. To leave the game, the group, in addition to finding Spencer, must recover the Falcon’s Heart — a magical necklace stolen by warlord Jurgen the Brutal — which can end the drought if brought before sunlight and uttering Jumanji. Like before, each avatar has three lifelines with the addition of new skills (Ruby Roundhouse is now a nunchuck expert) and weaknesses (Prof. Oberon can now add heat, sun and sand to his growing list).
The special effects are top notch. In addition to an exciting rope bridge scene in the jungle with vicious mandrills, the game’s map has now expanded to include the desert and dunes where the avatars are chased by prehistoric-looking ostriches and to Jurgen’s castle on an icy mountaintop where they face perilous cliffs and an unfriendly host.
As far as laughs go, The Next Level just might outdo its predecessor. Blain’s character Fridge finds much to complain about being in his new avatar, Prof. Oberon, which he finds even worse than when he was stuck as “Mouse,” whose weaknesses include cake. “At least I was still black,” he groans.
Hart and Johnson’s characters are even funnier as perennially confused grandpas stuck in younger bodies. Johnson’s Danny DeVito impersonation with a New Jersey accent has hilarious results, especially when attempting to “smolder,” while Hart is tasked with capturing Glover’s slower speech, and his avatar ends up revealing key facts of the game too slowly to be of any use.
The clever script, filled with action, adventure and lots of comedy coupled with an outstanding cast and terrific soundtrack, is a winning formula. The final scene hints at a “Jumanji 4” — can’t wait! Running time is two hours.
Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language, Jumanji: The Next Level is now playing in local theaters.